Tackling the Grocery Budget
Crystal Miller


This month I hope to be able to give you some practical help in tackling your grocery budget.  This is a big goal as a food budget is comprised of more than just numbers on a page.  It involves how we cook, how we eat, it can even be an emotional issue to some.  Meaning that it is easy to view certain foods as something we just can’t live without and our reaction to this is more emotional than practical.  If you desire serious changes in the amount of money spent monthly on food, it may require making adjustments in several areas.    

The start of any food budget is the willingness to examine habits; how you eat, cook, shop, plan, etc.. and have a determination to make changes if needed. 

I have found that every time I look to see what I can change I find something I can work on.  It is true that there is a ‘bottom line’ on what it costs to eat.  But I don’t think to many women who stress over an inflated budget have ever come close to this ‘bottom line’.   

So what does it cost to feed a family you may ask?  Well I looked to the government guidelines to see what they had to say (http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/FoodPlans/Updates/foodmar05.pdf ).  I decided to add the costs up for feeding my family.  I have 2 adults, 3 teenagers, 1 pre-teen, a 9 year old, and a 7 year old.  I sat in total dismay as my calculator revealed the cost of the “thrifty” plan: $897.00!    That was an incredible far cry from the average $450 I have been spending monthly this year.   

That tells me I won’t be going to the government for their numbers. Rather it is time to look at the money that the Lord has given us to meet our needs and to look at my responsibility to be the best steward possible with these funds.  This is what His blessings are for my family and it is my job to live within my means.  I won’t go to the world or even my neighbor to figure out what I should spend, unless my neighbor is a very thrifty kind of lady with lots to teach me! You must start with the numbers.  How much do you have? How much can you afford to spend on food?  Or even, what would be wise to spend?  Just because someone might be able to spend nearly $900 a month to feed a family my size does not mean that is the wisest way to use that money!   

Next is to look at what you have been spending.  Add up the grocery costs since the beginning of the year and divide this by the months that have passed and that will let you know how much you have been spending.  How much would be a good goal to spend each month and how far apart is your goal and reality?  The distance between those two numbers tells you how much work you have to do.  If these numbers are pretty close, then maybe some of my ideas will give you enough to help to tweak things in your favor.  If there is a wide gap, well you have some serious work to do! ~smile~  

I am going to go with the assumption that your budget is not where you want and you have some serious work to do.  I would like to try and offer help to those that are in the greatest need of ideas and direction.   

The first place to start is to plan a menu.  When you set out to plan a menu you need to keep nutrition in mind but also you need to plan a menu that has an abundance of low cost foods in it (if you need extra help with planning a low budget menu, you might like to take a look at my "budget menu" ebooks).  I really focus on low cost food that is health giving.  I do use some ingredients that may seem higher in cost at first glance, but I choose these foods because of their  health benefit.  Butter is one of those foods. Margarine is certainly cheaper, but I believe it is so very bad for you (you can click here if you want to be enlightened as to why hydrogenated oils have no place in anyone’s diet), but despite using higher cost butter (and a selected amount of other products) I have been able to keep our average monthly budget this year at $450.  The key is focusing my menu planning around lots of low cost basic foods.   

If you read or follow my blog at all you will know that throughout this last month I have posted a few daily menus and then would post a daily breakdown of the costs of those menus. You may have noticed on there that one of our breakfast staples is oatmeal and toast.  I feed 6 children and myself oatmeal, with butter on our toast for $1.70.  If I add a 16 oz. can of frozen orange juice concentrate to this breakfast I have now spent $2.68.  Now I have goats in milk but if I added 2 cups of store bought whole milk that would raise the price to: $3.00 or so.  Now if I took the typical breakfast of boxed cereal, toast, margarine, and orange juice, I would spend more than $3.00 just on the cereal alone (I am considering how much cereal I would need to buy to feed a ! family my size). The quality of food does not always have to be sacrificed for cost.   

To begin this adventure you need to focus on “low cost basic foods”.  You need to be thinking that anything packaged in a box and ready to go is not a ‘low cost food’.  Go back to basics like dried beans, legumes, brown rice, oats, wheat (or flour), meat, vegetables, dry goods. You know; the basics where our food comes from.  By the time you serve up that soup in a can you have paid a premium for the processing and packaging.  Soups are typically a very inexpensive food.  I fed a friend and 5 of her young children (ages ranging from 12 down to 3), plus my 6 children and myself a delicious split pea soup lunch (without meat, no one complained) and I added a box of crackers that I had in the cupboard (not a typical item I buy but one I had purchased for a special occasion and did not end up using) and I spent $1.50.  I added some sliced cucumbers and tomatoes from my garden which did not increase the cost for me.  But even if I had added some store bought carrots that I made into sticks my price would still have been under $2.00 (I buy 10#’s of carrots at Costco for $2.68 and let me tell you this makes A LOT of carrot sticks!!).  Even at the $2.00 price that would mean we would have eaten for about 14 cents per person.  And by the way there was enough soup leftover the next day to add to my husband’s lunch!   

Be conscious of shopping for food that is in season.  When you shop for vegetables, only buy what is in season and the lowest cost.  We live the entire winter on cabbage, beets and carrots!  Same with fruit, don’t buy peaches in February..  buy then in August.    

Now let’s talk about husbands and feeding them.  I often hear from women that say they will plan this great inexpensive menu and then find that the foods their husbands want ruin the whole thing.  My advice is to think about him FIRST when you plan the menu!  Make accommodations for him and his desired foods.  This does not necessarily have to be a budget buster; especially if you can work to accommodate him from the beginning.   Plan a menu first with him in mind.  My husband likes meat, as most men do I imagine.  But he does not necessarily need a “meat and potatoes” meal every night. He is happy to have hamburger mixed with the bean taco filling or sausage in his red bean soup.  I have been able to accommodate him in this way while still staying within my budget.  I had a friend tell me that as she was growing up her mother would make inexpensive meals ! for everyone and her dad would have that meal and a piece of meat added on the side.  This way he could have what he wanted and her mother was still able to keep the groceries within her budget.  Be creative in your thinking!!    

If your husband enjoys certain foods it does not mean that it has to be a “free for all” of that food for the rest of the family.  Tobin really enjoys Lays potato chips with his lunch.  I don’t normally buy snack foods for my kids.  But this is something Tobin has not wanted to give up.  That is ok with me.  I buy one large bag from Costco and they are “Dads” chips.  They are not available to the rest of the family.  This is not mean or cruel it is a way of staying within my budget (being a good steward of my money) while giving respect and acknowledgement towards Tobin as the hard worker who is daily at his job providing for our needs.  Life is not always equal.   

After focusing on foods that are basics we can look at a real budget buster; snack foods!   Have you ever taken the receipts for the month and looked at how much has been spent on crackers, chips, bakery items, granola bars, little containers of yogurt, fruit and the like? You might be surprised at what this adds up to.  To begin with just consider the nutritional value of what you are purchasing.  Most of the chips and crackers available have hydrogenated oils in them (with the exception the Lays regular potato chips! ~smile~).  Many of these items are loaded with white sugar and white flour.  The nutritional values of a few grains that are thrown in a granola bar are far out weighted by the bad ingredients.   

Now let’s look at packaging.  You are paying a premium to have someone else package your food up for you.  Those little containers of applesauce are outrageously priced when compared to buying the large cans.  I buy a #10 can of applesauce for $2.69, that comes to less than 1 cent per ounce!  But you say your small family can’t eat over 6 lbs. of applesauce??  Well first remember it will last in the fridge for several days or you can freeze it!  If you think your family will have a hard time breaking from small containers of things like this, then try buying the new reusable lunch type plastic containers and fill them yourself.  You could even freeze these in the containers and be able to pull them out to pack a lunch or serve as a snack.   

Another favorite snack food is yogurt. Are those small containers of yogurt a good deal?  Well after you remove the pectin and the sugar I ask myself how much real yogurt am I paying for?  If I don’t make our yogurt then I prefer to buy a large container of Nancy’s Yogurt (a real yogurt, made with live cultures).  This can have a small amount of jam or honey or maple syrup added to it to give it some flavor and still end up with less sugar and a much better value for your money.   

The bigger question I pose to people is the actual ‘need’ for snacks.  We do not eat snacks daily at our house. I think a regular snack habit is just that, a habit.  Years ago I realized that if my kids were snacking on foods throughout the day, even healthy foods, then they did not eat that well at a meal and consequently needed to “snack” again shortly after a meal.  My kids don’t snack on a regular basis.  I find they have better appetites when we sit down to eat and they fill up and usually don’t need to eat again until the next meal.  Besides a home cooked meal is far more nutritious than the snack foods that will fill them up and what can better for dinnertime attitudes than coming to a table with a hungry tummy!  Hunger is normal and ok, it is our bodies’ way of telling us it is meal time.   

Occasionally we have a snack as a special treat, like a family movie night or other event, and it is usually popcorn which I buy in bulk.  I buy 25#’s of popcorn at a time and this is what I use to grind up for cornbread or any other recipe needing cornmeal.  So I always have it available for snacking as well.  I bought a hot air popper at a garage sale for $2.50 and it makes great popcorn with a little melted butter and salt.   If for some reason the time between lunch and dinner is unusually long then my kids will snack on peanut butter toast.  I usually have bananas or apples available to them for those times. Right now we have had plums, peaches and watermelon to the point that the kids are tired of it!  But again I typically serve the fruit at the meal.  If we make a dessert after dinner and there is any left the next day then they will snack on that.  But! overall it is not a regular habit in our home to have snacks. This saves a lot on the food budget.   

If you don’t feel you can go “cold turkey” on the snacks then consider making low cost homemade snacks such as muffins or carrot sticks and homemade ranch dressing.  And begin to reduce the snack habit as much as possible.  

In conclusion the main areas to look at when trying to lower your grocery bill are: 

1) Look at how much money the Lord has given you to work with and be determined to make it work.

2) Examine your current methods, how you shop, what you eat, and be willing to make changes

3) Focus on basic low cost food and cook from scratch.  There was a time in life when everyone had basic foods in the cupboard and had to cook from scratch.  It was a way of life.  Basic foods are your best value for your money.

4) Remember to think about your husband’s food likes and desires and work to accommodate this into the budget

5) Drop the snack habit or at least greatly reduce it.  Get into the habit of serving 3 meals a day for your family.  It is better on the budget!  It is better nutritionally too, in my view. 

I pray that this information was helpful this month and that you will be able to have a great impact on reducing your family’s grocery budget, improving the health value of what you serve and best of all the satisfaction of eating delicious home cooked foods!  ~smile~ 

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